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Differences between Religious Titles Brother, Friar, Minister, and Monk

Updated on September 7, 2016
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Beverley Byer has been writing professionally for a number of years. Her work has been published in magazines and newspapers.

Religious brothers, friars, ministers, and monks devote their entire lives to God or Jesus Christ. Additionally, religious brothers, friars, and monks take the vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Depending on denomination and certification, ministers may do the same thing. So, what then are the specific differences between these religious titles and communities?

A (Religious) Brother

For a better understanding of this title, it is best to consider it as it is used in the Catholic tradition. A brother is simply a layman who works in ministry to serve God by combining his regular skills and/ or talents with his ministerial duties. A chef, teacher, carpenter or doctor would apply those skills as part of his spiritual service to the religious community in which he lives. To further clarify, a brother who is a chef and is in the order of the Brothers of St. Francis Xavier would be involved in meal preparations for that community.

Originally brother was the title given to volunteer laymen who replaced those who were moving up the ladder to become monks. They were needed to take over the manual labor in the monasteries. When attention and work shifted toward education at the beginning of the 17th century, brothers became more than just laborers. According to the article “Brother (Catholic),” in the 18th and 19th centuries, brotherhood organizations such as the Irish Christian Brothers and the Brothers of Holy Cross were specifically created to focus on education.

Dominican friar
Dominican friar | Source

A Friar

The word ‘friar’ says the article “What Is a Catholic Friar,” stems from the Latin word ‘frater’, which means ‘brother’ in English. Early Christians addressed each other in this manner. But by the end of the 13th century, the word took on new meaning. It was solely designated to a particular order or organization of Christian men who took their vow of poverty to another level: They could not own any property whatsoever and had to support themselves from the charity of others and/ or from jobs. They also lived mainly among the secular community as opposed to living in a monastic one. Such orders were called mendicants.

There are two classes of, or more formally, Orders of Friars: four great orders and lesser orders. The four great orders are the Franciscans or Friars Minor also called Gray Friars founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209 and became mendicant in 1223; the Dominicans or Friars Preachers also Black Friars founded by St. Dominic in 1215 and became mendicant in 1221; the Augustinians or Hermits of St. Augustine also called Austin Friars founded by the North African Bishop of Hippo before joining with other hermit communities to become a mendicant order in 1256; and the Carmelites or White Friars who became mendicant in 1245 and are divided into Calced (shoe-wearing) Carmelites and Disclaced (non-shoe-wearing) Carmelites.

Gray Friars, Black Friars, and White Friars were so called because of their vestment’ colors.

In December 1955, the 25th session (Session XXV) of the Council of Trent, one of the Roman Catholic’s highest ecumenical councils, loosened its strictness on the vow of poverty for all orders of friars except the Capuchins (a lesser order) and the Franciscans. The Carmelites were the only order who chose to accept the new edict, but with restrictions.

Ordained minister: Absalom-Jones Peale, first African American priest in the Episcopal denomination
Ordained minister: Absalom-Jones Peale, first African American priest in the Episcopal denomination | Source

A Minister

The definition of minister depends on credentials or on the religious denomination issuing the title. For some, it may be their first step to full ordination. For others, it is a temporary license given them to serve as clergy or they could be fully ordained members of clergy.

In the first instance, candidates are usually on probation when granted a license. In the second instance, ministers are temporarily authorized to perform all or some functions (weddings, funerals, preaching, spiritual counseling) at congregations lacking clergy, in certain locations, or to help established clergy who are in need of additional support while serving their congregations. According to the article “What Is the Difference between a Licensed Minister and an Ordained Minister?” from, some states dictate whether licensed ministers could perform weddings.

Thirdly, the fully ordained minister is authorized to perform whatever functions his/ her particular denomination deemed to be part of their pastoral duties. Educational requirements and certifications for licensed and ordained ministers also depend on the particular denomination.

(Christian) monk
(Christian) monk | Source
Buddhist monk
Buddhist monk | Source

A Monk

Monks exist in the following religious or spiritual traditions: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Taoism. He is a man who dedicates himself to a life of prayer, meditation/ contemplation, and service. Evidence points to Buddha as the originator of this discipline. The etymology of the word itself leads to several languages, including Greek and Latin. Ultimately, the word means solitude. But not all monks are hermits. Some live in monastic communities.

Prior to the 8th century and St. Benedict’s rule (a book of instructions written by Benedict of Nursia for abbeys -monasteries led by abbots), monks were classed into four categories: 1) Cenobites who lived as siblings in a monastery with an abbot as the father-figure. 2) Anchorites who were hermits or eremitical and lived a solitary lifestyle. 3) Sarabaites who lived under no real guidance or rules. 4) Gyrovagues who wandered about like gypsies, staying in different monasteries for short periods of time.

The last two groups were highly disfavored and discounted as true practitioners of the monastic discipline. The Anchorites began their faith journey in monasteries to determine if they were dedicated enough to pursue such a lifestyle, then go live it in solitude. Some Cenobites chose to be cloistered, working only within their monastery. Others took vows of silence.

A monk in the Christian tradition could be ordained, but it was and is not a necessity. To become a monk, a man applies to a monastery, undergoes a round of interviews, and if accepted, is given a six month trial period. Afterwards, he becomes a novice and continues to study and work, usually for three years. Finally, he is able to take his vow and become a full member of his chosen order.

In other religions such as Buddhism, female monks are acceptable. The Buddhist term for them is Bhukkhuni. For the men, it is Bhikkhu. They are either licensed or ordained. Usually, Buddhist monks can be identified by their brightly colored yellow or orange robes and shaved heads. But they also wear brown, black, gray, and blue robes, depending on region. Some live in temples, while others choose to live more simply in huts.

As we can see, religious brothers, friars, ministers, and monks have similarities, but they are different even within their own communities.


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